Pour le Mérite, Cross (with oak leaves, in silver gilt)
Image courtesy of Czerny's International Auction House
Image courtesy of Czerny's International Auction House
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The Order Pour le Mérite was established by King Friedrich II of Prussia in 1740 and it was conferred as both a military and civil honour. King Friedrich wanted a genuine, universally recognized order of merit to secure a sense of state and an expansive political program.
The order was unofficially introduced, without documentation. Ernst Philippe Collivaux was commissioned to produce the early crosses which were based on the Order de la Générosité. However, a royal crown was featured atop the 12’clock arm. The king’s adjutant general, Colonel Hans Christof Friedrich von Hacke, was the first recipient of the award, in June 1740. The awards of the Pour le Mérite were announced for the first time during the Holland Campaign in the Berlin newspaper in 1787.
The order was named in French, since during the time, French was the leading international language and most fashionable at Friedrich’s court.
Following the formation of the federally organized German Empire, Prussian honours essentially assumed the status of Imperial awards, despite the fact that honours of numerous other German states continued to be issued.
In 1794, there were 694 living knights.
In January 1810, King Friedrich Wilhelm III declared that the award could only be conferred upon actively serving military officers. Prior to this date, it was awarded for both military and political
In March 1813, surmounting oak leaves were added as an additional distinction, which indicated extraordinary merit in battle. This honour was usually reserved for high-ranking officials. By the First World War, the oak leaves came to indicate that an individual had received a second or higher Pour le Mérite award. However, the recipients were still usually high-ranking officers.
By 1817, it was no longer permitted to wear both decorations (with and without swords) at the same time.
In 1832, it was decided that the gold letters in the inscription would no longer be gold, but instead inlaid in metal. However, the first font changes from italics to antiqua can be seen around 1777/1778 by goldsmith Daniel Baudesson.
In 1844, a surmounting crown could be added to the crosses of order recipients that had been members for a minimum of 50 years.
In 1842, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV established a separate civil class, the Pour le Mérite for Sciences and Art. The award included three sections: natural science, humanities, and fine arts.
In 1866, King Wilhelm I of Prussia (Wilhelm Friedrich Ludwig) added the Grand Cross with Grand Cross Breast Star as an order grade. The Grand Cross was only awarded to five recipients, King William I of Prussia, Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm and Prince Friedrich Karl of Prussia, Tsar Alexander II of Russia, and Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke. In 1873, oak leaves to the Grand Cross were implemented.
In 1878, it was decreed that foreign recipients of the order were not eligible for surmounting oak leaves.
The award gained international fame during the First World War, with its most famous recipients being the pilots of the German Army Air Service. In early 1917, a pilot needed to have destroyed 17 enemy air crafts, and by the end of the war that number rose to 30.
One of the most famous recipients of the award was flying ace Manfred von Richthofen, known as the Red Baron.
In 1918, following the end of the First World War, the state sponsorship of the order ended. The military class of the order was abolished; however, the civil class remained, with members re-establishing the order as a separate organization, with new rules and a new nomination procedure.
During the Weimar Republic, a total of 40 new recipients were appointed to the order, one of them being Albert Einstein in 1923. The last one was conferred in 1933, and soon after the Third Reich repressed the order and expelled its Jewish members as “enemies of the state”.
After 1952, a civil class was re-established and individuals are still admitted into membership. German author Ernst Jünger was the last living recipient of the military class award, prior to his death in 1998.
The order was awarded 5,750 times in its history.
Common manufacturers of the Order Cross in Gold include: Daniel Collivaux and Ernest Philipp Collivaux (1740-1757), Baudesson et fils, Berlin (1787-1817), Wagner & Sohn, Friedländer, and Godet.
Early crosses are often crude in their construction, presenting thick light blue enamel with small white dots outlining the crown. The suspension loop was made of thin gold wire. In 1800, the centre of the cross became larger, but the same general design was retained. The size of the cross increased to 51mm from tip to tip. In 1915, the suspension loop changed from an open wire suspension to a solid pie-shaped one. In November, 1916, silver gilt crosses were implemented. Crosses that were made during the First World War are often flatter.
Oak leaves were produced by the royal jeweller and took the form of three oakleaves grouped together in an oval. The first ones were created in gold with a convex front and concave reverse, with a suspension piece to connect to both the PLM and the neck ribbon. Later, they were modified to be slightly larger and simplified. Silver gilt oakleaves were also introduced in 1916. On December 17, 1917, it was decreed that the ribbon would have an additional middle silver stripe.
The crown was originally crafted in gold by the royal jeweller, Houssauer. It measured 17mm x 14mm, was three-dimensional with open spaces between the crown’s arches, and had a strong wire loop. The reverse finish was identical to the obverse, and it was suspended from the ribbon.
During the First World War, Wagner made silver gilt decorations, which always feature the '938' content mark. Godet & Sohn made PLMs before and after 1918. Silver gilt pieces made before 1918 feature the mark 'J.G.u.S 938'.
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